Billionaires unveil plan to mine platinum in space

Film director James Cameron and Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin have joined other super-rich investors in backing a bold new venture: to hunt for precious metals among the stars.

Selling at around $50 for a single gram, platinum is among the most precious minerals on the planet. Now, a bold group of space visionaries intend to go off the planet in the hope of finding more.

At a press conference in Seattle yesterday, engineers and scientists from Planetary Resources Inc laid out plans to unlock the riches of the solar system – through one of the most ambitious programmes of space exploration the world has ever seen.

Using ‘swarms’ of cheap, powerful space vehicles, the team will seek out rocky asteroids that float within easy range (i.e. within a few hundred thousand miles) of the Earth’s orbit. Using a technique called spectroscopy, scientists will be able to guess at the composition of these asteroids.

The first thing these robotic prospectors will be looking for is water. With power from the sun, advanced spacecraft could separate water molecules (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen – which can then be used for rocket fuel. The water from one small asteroid would produce as much fuel as was used in every Space Shuttle mission ever flown.

Successful water harvesting would provide a limitless source of fuel, without the need to carry heavy loads up from the Earth’s surface. The cost of bringing payloads into orbit can be as high as $5,000 per kilogram.

Given such a fuel source, the next phase of asteroid harvesting could begin. Platinum and other precious metals can be found in asteroids at concentrations twenty times higher than in the best Earth mines. An average sized rock (around the size of a football field) could hold platinum worth not millions but billions of dollars.

But the thing that has space enthusiasts really excited is the idea of using asteroids to supply raw materials for more space construction. Carbon – which is plentiful – could be used to create food for future space settlers. And metals like iron could be used to build a new generation of space-constructed machines – larger and more powerful than anything we can get into orbit today.

Sci-fi dreams

Many of the scientists working at Planetary Resources have been dreaming about this since childhood. They remember how science fiction writers used to describe a bright interstellar future, in which asteroid mines lead to moon bases; moon bases to orbital dockyards, where huge ships are built to carry space colonists to the outer planets, the moons of Jupiter and finally the distant stars. Could that future be coming round at last?

But not everyone shares this enthusiasm. The sad truth, say the cynics, is that apart from all the precious metal, outer space just isn’t a very exciting place to be. Like Antarctica, or the Sahara Desert, we can get there if we try, but once we arrive there’s nothing much to do except take pictures and crack rocks.

You Decide

  1. Would it be exciting to colonise the Solar System?
  2. Once space exploration was conducted by government agencies like NASA. Now it is being led by private corporations like Planetary Resources Inc. Is that a good or a bad thing?

Activities

  1. Draw up a blueprint for your own asteroid-mining ship. Remember it has to be as light as possible in order to be launched from the Earth’s surface.
  2. In pairs, choose one famous spacecraft from history – then research and create a short presentation about its history and design.

Some People Say...

“If humanity doesn’t manage to colonise space, it is doomed on Earth.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So when do I get to go and live on the Moon then?
That day is still a very long way away – if it ever comes at all. And life on the Moon would probably be cramped and unhealthy.
Why’s that?
Cramped because building big things in space is hard. Unhealthy because of high radiation levels, and low gravity which leads to various disorders of the muscle and bone.
So space exploration is pointless?
Not necessarily. In the best-case scenario, space mines and power stations could one day – say in three or four decades – provide Earth with huge supplies of energy and raw materials. That would make life a lot easier for everyone.

Word Watch

Platinum
Rarer than gold, platinum is used for jewelry, in electronic components, and for catalytic converters used in car exhausts.
Spectroscopy
Spectroscopy involves analysing reflected radiation coming off an object in space. The precise combination of wavelengths that are reflected can reveal a lot about an object’s composition. The other way of determining an object’s composition is to work out its density, by analysing the movement of smaller bodies in orbit around it.
Space shuttle
NASA Space Shuttles flew more than a hundred space missions during their thirty years of service, but accidents killed several astronauts and launch costs remained stubbornly high. A problem for all Earth-based space craft is that they have to carry a huge amount of fuel to escape Earth’s gravitational pull. This fuel load adds to the weight, which then further increases the necessary amount of fuel, in a vicious circle.

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